// what do you think?


The Fine Line Between Persuade, Influence and Manipulate. Have We Crossed It?

In this industry of Marketing - in all of it’s forms - we talk a lot about Influence and Persuasion. But what do we really mean? What does it mean to Influence someone or to Persuade them? What are we trying to get them to do and why? At any given Social Media, PR or Marketing conference we throw around these words a lot, and no one bats an eye.

If you were to ask your average consumer if they want to be influenced or persuaded by a company, what do you think the answer would be?

@anthromeg on her blog - Applying Anthropology: Why P&G’s Global Strategy “Persuasion” Strategy is Flawed points to a recent article about P&G and some questionable wording on the part of their CMO.

In a recent Businessweek article Bob McDonald, the current CEO of P&G outlined his strategy. Alarmingly, he talks about “persuading” customers in various markets to use their products. I think this quote sums it up nicely:

“That means persuading men in India to shave with disposable razors, convincing African women of the benefits of Western feminine hygiene products, and selling more teeth whiteners to Americans.”

Without even going into the ethics of this strategy which could be its own blog post, I’d like to discuss why this strategy will fail in the long run.

One word: culture. The products in our lives are cultural manifestations. They are artifacts that play specific roles in our norms, traditions, rituals, customs, rites, etc., etc., etc. As such, they are imbedded into our lives for specific reasons.

If one stops top think about it wording like this is a little unsettling but many of us use this type of wording everyday at work.  Before we go on let’s stop and look at the actual definitions of these words to see why it is that we’re so uncomfortable with them. According to Dictionary.com:

Persuade –verb

  • to prevail on (a person) to do something, as by advising or urging.
  • to induce to believe by appealing to reason or understanding; convince.

Influence –noun

  • the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others.
  • the action or process of producing effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of another or others.
  • a person or thing that exerts influence.

Influence -verb

  • to exercise influence on; affect; sway.
  • to move or impel (a person) to some action.

Again, there isn’t anything ovetly bad about these definitions. What these definitions and our own use of the words fail to get at are the two most important factors: Intent and Will.

Intent: In communications and marketing, intent, for me, is everything. What is the intent of this interaction? Is it to really get to know me or is it to feign interest in order to sell me something? Do you really care how I’m doing or what I’m interested in or are you just looking to fill a KPI? Are you just looking for clicks, likes and RT’s or do you want to know more about me so that you can better serve my needs.

This is the same point that Megan makes in her post about P&G. Are you just looking to sell the developing World existing products developed for the Western World or do you want to learn what their needs are and then figure out how to best suit their needs - which *might* just be accomplished with existing products.

Will: The reason Marketing is often seen as sleezy isn’t because of the above problem if intent. Everyone tries to get their way, not just Marketing, but when we seek to persuade or influence people against their will, or trick them into something, this is where the hairs on our necks start to stand on end. Manipulation of human will is one of those base human triggers that go against the very nature of humanity.

Every Most marketers I know are really good people and never *set out* to manipulate people. But sometimes we find outselves so wrapped up in delivering a particular outcome that we find ourselves using tactics that go against our own human nature. And once we go down that road, it’s hard to go back.

My ask is that as you find yourself in meetings or at conferences talking about ways to Influence and Persuade customers, stop a minute and think about why you are doing this. Are you genuinely trying to help the customer or just meet some arbitrary numbers?


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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

  • http://twitter.com/KellyJoHorton Kelly Jo Horton

    Marketing always feels sleazy to me when I feel like the intent is to manipulate.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    And humans have a pretty good 6th sense about those kind of things. We’re pretty good at getting intent even if we don’t realize it. 

  • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

    I think you know how I feel about this.  90% of what we call ‘marketing’ is in fact ego-driven manipulative toxic nonsense.  Yes, it got me in trouble to call out stuff like this at several previous jobs.

    Metrics based on ‘conversions’, ‘sales’, ‘ROI’, ‘hits’ will always lead us down the ‘numbers-must-go-up-doesnt-matter-how’ path.

    This is how we’ve gotten to where we are, with government on both sides bending over backwards to hand the keys to the kingdom over to toxic, ego-driven, manipulative and selfish companies with only their bottom lines in their vision, under the guise of ‘doing whats best for stockholders’.

    What youv’e described here is a microcosm of the failure of America right now.

  • http://www.rocketwatcher.com April Dunford

    Nice post! I completely agree with this. If there’s a great fit between your offering and your market, the job of marketing is to simply illustrate that fit (“pushing” isn’t required).
    At the same time, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with asking for a sale (which would count as “impelling a person to some action”). I’ve worked with technical startup founders that are so worried about looking like “pushy sales people” that they lose business to more assertive competitors because they simply don’t ask for the deal. In my experience, the customer only feels “pushed” when the product isn’t a fit or it’s just too early in the process to make a purchase decision. 

  • http://twitter.com/spincycle3 David Patton

    To me this is all about goals, which as you point out at the end, is where marketing often falls apart because there are “marketing” goals rather than business or other problems. On the example of men shaving with disposable razors, there are probably goals around awareness and sales, but to @anthromeg’s point, the goal should be to build  viable business. That might mean developing different products.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Yes, I was channeling more than a little of my “inner Jeremy Meyers” while writing this ;)  

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    It amazes me how disconnected marketing goals are from business goals even when one should be supporting the other. Of course the other problem is that sometimes marketing goals are perfectly aligned with business goals, it’s just that as @jeremymeyers:disqus points out, the business goals are rubbish.  

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    There is nothing wrong with selling or making money. In fact I believe that a lot of these problems with marketing would be solved if businesses just asked for the sale instead of beating around the bush and trying to be everyone’s friend. If your product is a good fit then the sale will be easy, if it’s not you have some work to do on the product, or you’re talking to the wrong customer. What you don’t need to do is to “massage the message” 

  • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

    shouldn’t the goal be to create the best shaving experience at the lowest cost to the customer using earth-safe materials as much as possible, rather than any of those things?

  • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

    Isn’t that PR?

  • http://twitter.com/spincycle3 David Patton

    Only if that is good for the organization. This is how we have bad polluters. 

  • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

    not sure what that means…

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